While I’ve been blogging about environmentalism and sustainability for several months, as an arts student I’ve found the science behind climate change pretty impenetrable. For its myriad wonders, the chaotic information network that is the internet can make finding reliable literature a challenge. I wanted an introduction, so I thought The Rough Guide to Climate Change might be a sensible place to start.
The ironically titled series provides introductions to a vast range of topics but, particularly on non-travel related subjects, does not attempt to be your only reference point. Rather, it is a launch pad for further research. For my particular interests, Robert Henson’s book was excellent.
Nestled within an outline of the basics, a guide to greener living and stimuli for further readings, the book is set out in a tripartite structure with sections entitled: ‘The symptoms’, ‘The science’ and ‘Debates & solutions’. The first two sections are focused around the science – what I was looking for – devoting 216 out of 400 pages to the gritty detail of what is happening to the planet, why and how we know it. The final section draws the political narrative of climate change so far and points towards the possible solutions.
For me, the book’s best aspect is its clean, concise and uncomplicated explanation of decades of climate science. If you’re looking for a Wikipedia-sized blast this is not for you, but the extra length is necessary to appreciate a wide-ranging subject. Henson – perhaps due to his background as both scientist and journalist – takes care to introduce organisations, scientific terms and theories without appearing to dumb anything down, but in plain terms. For what is, in essence, a science book, that is impressive.
In an introductory text, one would hope that any argument would be perfectly balanced. Henson does make an effort to explain the positions of numerous individuals and organisations sceptical of climate change, but always sets up their arguments and knocks them back down with his own criticism. This was most true of the section ‘A Heated Debate’ where, on pages 272-273, Henson lists critical points such as “the atmosphere isn’t warming”, “the benefits will outweigh the problems” and “technology will come to the rescue” then points out their flaws.
Yet, my criticism is nullified if you accept one of the author’s most intriguing points. He suggests that the desire to be ‘balanced’ in journalism, to include both points of view equally, is perhaps not best suited to reporting on scientific topics like climate change. In science, a small group of contrarians who disagree with the majority of their peers, Henson argues, should not get the same level of press coverage. This is a real danger for public understanding of science. Even beyond science reporting, this is an interesting reflection for journalists to ponder.
Of all the materials, what stood out most for me was the section on the long run picture of the earth’s climate. The four graphs on pages 224-225 showed the earth’s temperature on four different timescales: over hundreds of years, over thousands of years, over tens of millions of years and over billions of years. What struck me is how the global warming of the last hundred years is statistically significant even over the million year timescale. The power of such graphics is reminiscent of Al Gore’s powerpoint from An Inconvenient Truth.
The Rough Guide to Climate Change was an incredibly useful tentative first step towards understanding climate science. Its detailed explanations, powerful graphics and helpful pointers for further reading (both in terms of literature and scientific reporting) have given me plenty of direction. Ultimately, Robert Henson provides the three things you really need from any introduction: explanation, balance and inspiration.